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Yes, we should be socialists February 21, 2010

Posted by Summerspeaker in Technocracy, The Singularity, Transhumanism.
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Robert Wiblin asks the question. I answer. While his post provides a useful discussion of capitalism’s ever-increasing absurdity, he needlessly stays within the confines of mainstream political discourse. Wiblin paints the picture of the market as a reasonable system for past and present but potentially disastrous for the future. To the contrary, it has been harmful and irrational from the start. It’s an obviously backwards way to pursue the common good, requiring belief in unseen appendages. (Almost like this.) I support libertarian socialism at any technology level; as my primitivist comrades tell me, the best evidence suggests early humans had rather egalitarian and communal social structures. The bosses have prevented, crushed, and co-opted popular revolutions in modern times, but they’ve come close enough to suggest the possibility of the dream.

Regardless of feasibly of anarchism before industrialization, a huge material change had occurred by the start of the twentieth century. In the Technical Alliance, a group of engineers and academics got together and concluded that money and private property had become a joke in the new world of mechanically produced abundance. If scarcity had previously stopped the species from achieving the good life for everyone, that hindrance was gone by the time Howard Scott and company did their survey.  They unambiguously showed that North America had the natural, technical, and labor resources necessary to provide plenty to all. That was in the 1920s. Needless to say, we could do orders of magnitude better with the technology of today. Human organization remains the only problem.

Even accepting speculative assertions about our fundamental nature that rule out rational action for collective benefit, we transhumanists should still embrace Scott’s vision as a goal. If humans aren’t up to the task, then we’ll enhance ourselves and/or design artificial intelligence to manage production and distribution. If the present form of capitalism continues into the era of molecular manufacturing and strong AI, the harm done to the species will be almost immeasurable. We currently don’t have a clue how to deal with abundance, as evidenced by the choking restrictions placed on the flow of digital information. We have the technical ability for each person on the internet to have access to every publication, work of art, and program ever created. This would hardly cost anything. Indeed, the process would happen spontaneously if we removed the coercion; nothing but constant vigilance from authorities prevents it. Unless we transform the distribution system, I fear the same damn thing will happen once technology makes physical goods as plentiful as digital ones.

While I stand by my commitment to anarchism under any circumstances, socialism/technocracy as a central transhumanist aim should stretch across existing political categories. I can grasp the argument for clinging to capitalism in the sort run as much as I disagree with it, but only a love of hierarchy for its own sake can justify the market once we reach the Singularity.

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1. Zack M. Davis - February 22, 2010

Sorry if this comment is too long; I don’t know what your commenting policy is.

“To the contrary, [the market] has been harmful and irrational from the start. It’s an obviously backwards way to pursue the common good, requiring belief in unseen appendages.”

Could you elaborate on this? Nothing can be taken for “obvious” in the social sciences, and while a market economy might be a counterintuitive way to pursue the common good, I’m not convinced we have a feasible alternative (barring superintelligent singleton scenarios). I’m not going to appeal any tired tropes about humans being innately selfish or aggressive; rather, I claim that money is a mechanism that is well-suited to coordinating productive activity among diverse agents who are “small” relative to the society they live in. If the Invisible Hand is too anthropomorphic a metaphor for your tastes, then do what I do and think of it as the Invisible Decision-theoretic Effort Allocation Feedback Device.

We can agree that people should get what they want, but the process of people getting what they want is an enormously complicated endeavor: millions and millions of people, all of whom have their own idiosyncratic beliefs, desires, and talents, have to decide how to allocate their limited time in this gigantic world of tools built on tools built on tools built on tools where no one person or small group knows how it all fits together. Just getting such a complicated society to function at all is a hard problem, and I don’t see how to solve it without markets or something like them.

Specifically, even if I bear no ill will against my fellow humans and wish only to serve the common good—the wish by itself lacks implementation details. How do I serve the common good? How can the common good best make use of my talents? Should I study for eight years to become a doctor, to save people from death and disability? Or an engineer, to design the devices that the doctor uses to save people? Or a scientist, to do the basic research that the engineer uses to design the devices that—and so on; we can keep asking these questions for all the work that exists in the world, and all the work that doesn’t exist but maybe should.

Egalitarian norms of mutual consent that might work for a hunter-gatherer tribe don’t scale to a technological civilization. People are too small and the world is too big for everyone to get together and mutually agree on what everyone should do every day in order for people to get what they want, so the market must decide. If, for whatever reason, people start wanting more widgets than they used to, then they’ll try to buy more and bid the price up, and the people who are in charge of making widgets have an incentive to make more, which will drive the price down, but in the process of doing so they bid up the price of the raw materials we need to make widgets, and so on. The system does its best to even itself out, and, to a greater or lesser extent, people get what they want.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, obviously things don’t always turn out so well; people don’t get what they want; many are in terrible suffering; there is massive corruption and inequality.

I don’t know how to fix it. I’m not that smart. But I don’t think money or markets as such are the problem. Because when you want a loaf of bread, you go to the store and buy one. It works. It’s not trivial. I’m grateful.

“If scarcity had previously stopped the species from achieving the good life for everyone, that hindrance was gone by the time Howard Scott and company did their survey.”

To my mind, scarcity is a quantitative concept; people can be relatively richer or poorer, but there’s no escape from the fact of scarcity itself. I mean that literally. There’s only, what?—10^80 atoms in our lightcone? And we’ve got maybe 10^50 years before the stars run down or all the protons decay? Now, you might think that 10^130 atom-years is enough resources for anyone, but there’s a combinatorial explosion: the more atoms you have, the more possibilities you have for arranging those atoms. Not even a Bayesian superintelligence can escape scarcity.

“as my primitivist comrades tell me”

No offense intended, but can I just say that that is a fascinating alliance? I don’t think I can imagine anything more dissonant.

Summerspeaker - February 22, 2010

Sorry if this comment is too long; I don’t know what your commenting policy is.

No worries, Zack. I love long, thoughtful comments.

Could you elaborate on this? Nothing can be taken for “obvious” in the social sciences, and while a market economy might be a counterintuitive way to pursue the common good, I’m not convinced we have a feasible alternative (barring superintelligent singleton scenarios).

Counterintuitive would be exactly what I meant. Achieving general welfare through individual greed can only be described as a tortuous course. I understand the theory behind the invisible hand and the arguments for it, but I remain unconvinced. While I’m an advocate of complexity and subtly in many cases, on certain moral issues I favor the direct approach. I believe we’re too accepting of self-serving rationalizations about the ends justifying the means. In order to persuade me that doing something bad leads to something good, I need a mountain of evidence. The limited and ambiguous insights gained from historical investigation, so often employed to defend inequality and war, won’t satisfy. In order to embrace that unseen appendage, I would require conclusive, experimental proof about the inferiority of social organization based on equality, liberty, and mutual aid. Those tests won’t be run until well after the Singularity, so I plan on continuing to promote what’s beneficial and oppose what’s harmful. While competition and greed may dominate the overall picture, sharing and cooperation still feature prominently in interpersonal relationships. We anarchists (and others) attempt to extend this as far possible, offering what food, clothing, and housing we can to strangers. Our efforts are marked by scarcity and inefficiency because of lack of both technical skills and resources, but such non-market distribution systems are a meaningful part of the existing economic reality.

Just getting such a complicated society to function at all is a hard problem, and I don’t see how to solve it without markets or something like them.

Technocracy attempts to solve this problem with energy accounting. You’re quite correct that the market as it functions now conveys a tremendous amount of information. I’d want a similar or greater level of data flow in a system rationally designed for overall welfare. I guess it’s not the market itself that bothers me so much, but the horrific inequality it produces/maintains. If everyone on the planet had the same income, I wouldn’t have too many complaints. But it’s not just a way to determine what goods to produce and where to distribute them, but an arena in which to jockey for greater ability to consume. That’s what causes the inefficiency and oppression I despise. It’s also supposedly the only thing that keeps people working.

People are too small and the world is too big for everyone to get together and mutually agree on what everyone should do every day in order for people to get what they want, so the market must decide.

That’s an unproven assertion. Currently the market does decide, for the most part, but that doesn’t mean it must. We don’t know nearly enough about human social organization to set any firm rules. As discussed above, the useful ability of the market to transmit information about what to produce and where to take it could theoretically be matched by a different arrangement.

To my mind, scarcity is a quantitative concept; people can be relatively richer or poorer, but there’s no escape from the fact of scarcity itself.

By my understanding, scarcity relates to supply not meeting demand. Finiteness is not the same scarcity. Now, economics traditionally defines human wants as unlimited, thus supporting your use of the world. However, technocracy correctly dismisses this notion as misguided. A person’s ability to consume is quite finite. Endless wishes apply to social status, not material reality. No matter how many planes you claim to own, you can only spend twenty-four hours each day flying. Technocracy proposes to produce enough to satisfy everyone’s desire for consumption. While we could always come up with a desire extravagant enough to exceed the ability of even the most potent civilization, the insight holds. The vast majority of earnest human wants can be measured and provided for.

No offense intended, but can I just say that that is a fascinating alliance? I don’t think I can imagine anything more dissonant.

It’s about the same as interacting with capitalist transhumanist friends. I’m out of place everywhere. I appreciate the primitivist critique of modern society even though I completely disagree with their proposed solutions. We share many short-term and local goals. It does get depressing at times. I wish primitivism weren’t so prevalent in the anarchist scene; so few of my comrades have any positive feelings about existing technologies, much less interest in future ones. This wasn’t always the case. Early twentieth-century anarchists wrote glowingly about science and progress. I hope to revive that tradition.

2. Isaac J. - March 30, 2010

Capitalism can’t exist alongside a Friendly AI that controls an independent means of production that serves humanity regardless of race, class, gender, nationality, or worldview.


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